The Myth of Sisyphus
Themes of the Absurd in The Stranger
Camus is deservedly more famous for his novels, where many of his philosophical ideas are worked out in a more subtle and more engaging manner than in his essays. He wrote The Stranger (also translated as The Outsider) around the same time as The Myth of Sisyphus, and the two books in many ways parallel one another. The Myth of Sisyphus can be read as an attempt to clarify and to make explicit the worldview expressed in The Stranger, and The Stranger can be read as an example of the absurd hero and the absurd fiction described in The Myth of Sisyphus.
The Stranger tells the story of Meursault, who lives for the sensual pleasures of the present moment, free of any system of values. Rather than behave in accordance with social norms, Meursault tries to live as honestly as he can, doing what he wants to do and befriending those whom he likes. He also refuses to simulate feelings that he does not possess, and thus he does not force himself to cry at his mother's funeral or to mourn her death too deeply. A series of events leads to the climactic moment when Meursault haphazardly murders an Arab on the beach. The subsequent trial condemns him not so much for the murder as for his lack of commitment to the unspoken rules of society.
Most of the philosophical content of the novel comes near the end, where Meursault sits in his cell awaiting his execution, and particularly in a heated exchange between Meursault and the prison chaplain who tries to convert him to Christianity. Meursault rejects the chaplain's entreaties, telling him that he has no interest in God or anything otherworldly. He wants to live with the certainties of this life, even if his only certainty is the death that awaits him.
Meursault is an absurd hero both on a figurative and on a literal level. On a figurative level, Meursault, condemned to death and awaiting execution, is a metaphor for the human condition. On a literal level, Meursault perfectly exemplifies the absurd characteristics of revolt, freedom, and passion outlined by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. Meursault refuses to accord himself with custom, and asserts his freedom by doing what strikes him as appropriate at any given moment. This includes smoking and showing indifference at the vigil for his dead mother, going to the beach and sleeping with a woman the day after his mother's funeral, and forging a letter for his friend Raymond, who is a thug and a pimp. This exercise of freedom also represents a revolt against any attempt to place restrictions on his life. His passion is evident in his enthusiastic pursuit of new pleasures and new experiences: he loves being alive.
Meursault also maintains the kind of ironic detachment we would expect from an absurd hero. He prefers observing events to getting directly involved; one memorable chapter describes Meursault spending an entire day sitting on his balcony watching passers-by in the street. Even when he is directly involved in events, he is unable to get too caught up in them. When his lover, Marie, asks him to marry her, he tells her that he doesn't love her but that it makes no difference to him if they get married or not. Even when he kills the Arab, there is a sense that he is not really there, not really doing what he is doing. It seems almost as if he is observing himself shooting the Arab rather than actually doing the shooting.
In his final outburst to the chaplain in prison, Meursault sums up a great deal of his absurd worldview, forcefully asserting that nothing really matters, that we all live and we all die, and what we do before we die is ultimately irrelevant. After the chaplain leaves, Meursault enjoys a final, revelatory moment: "And I felt ready to live it all again too. As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again." Free from hope, Meursault recognizes himself in a universe without meaning and without hope. At the end of the novel, he comes to a full acceptance of his absurd position in the universe and cannot but conclude that he is happy.
Not only does Meursault exemplify many of the characteristics of an absurd hero. In writing The Stranger, moreover, Camus attempts to exemplify what he defines in The Myth of Sisyphus as the characteristics of the absurd artist. In The Stranger, Camus describes (and does not explain) ordinary events without getting too caught up in their philosophical implications and without trying to point to any universal themes. The first part of the novel, in particular, delights in describing the many humdrum events and quirky characters that fill Meursault's everyday life. We meet Salamano and his dog, caught in a moving love-hate relationship, and learn about the joys of sunbathing at the beach. In all of these descriptions, we find a fascination and exuberant joy at the myriad possible life experiences. Any universal themes we draw from the novel do not arise from excessive sermonizing or over-heavy symbolism, but from a cohesive and coherent worldview that is engaging and arresting.
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